What is it about old houses that attracts so much romance and superstition? Often, at least in films with an air of the Gothic, these grandly faded estates sit far removed from society and civilization, beaming with splendor in their dilapidated ruin. Like ghost stories themselves, we’re attracted to the insinuation of loss and pain hidden within… which is often better than the actual crusty truth. Such is the case with the Kasteel de Marrowbone, the shadowy ruin at the heart of horror maestro Sergio G. Sánchez’s directorial debut.
With Marrowbone, the longtime horror scribe moves over to the director’s chair for a handsomely mounted feature, but like the actual secrets hidden within the walls of his film’s location, the suggestion of a macabre tale is far more intriguing than the actual narrative conjured in this twisty, and often at times confused, campfire yarn. Obviously meant to evoke the familiar Gothic daydreams of its 1960s setting, such as The Innocents or The Haunting, Marrowbone is in no danger of chilling you to the actual bone. At least beyond the shock of how misguided and deadly the third act of this film turns out to be.
Set in a rural New England town, Marrowbone is ultimately about a tragedy-inflicted British family who has hopped the pond to start a new life. However, that life is permanently put on hold, as the mother who has allowed her children to take her maiden name of “Marrowbone”—we don’t know much about the father they’ve left other than she is convinced he’ll never find them here—is suddenly on death’s door at the end of a long and very belabored prologue. With her dying breath, she requests her eldest son Jack (George MacKay) not tell the authorities that she has died; if he did, the government would surely break up his family, and at age 20, Jack is only about a year away from being able to legally adopt his siblings.
So Jack keeps the secret of his mother’s death, apparently letting her body fester in the attic. After a time jump, we learn the area has been walled off, yet its memory is ever present due to a ghastly stain on the ceiling. In the meantime, his younger siblings, who include the hotheaded teenage archetype Billy (Charlie Heaton), the waifish teenage archetype Jane (Mia Goth), and the baby of the family archetype Sam (Matthew Stagg), yearn desperately to leave the house… but Jack refuses. He is trying to keep any unwanted attention from the nearby town, even as he skips off himself to romance Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), the girl next store (by some miles). Yet even this might be unwise, as Allie has similarly caught the eye of an older suitor (Kyle Soller), who is also the local town solicitor in charge of securing the crumbling Marrowbone farmhouse for Jack.
Oh and during all of this, there’s a ghost in the house somewhere shambling about. And for the first two-thirds of the film, it seems as lost as we are about its part in all this.
There is a lot aesthetically to admire about Marrowbone. From Sánchez’s pen, we’ve previously felt the supernatural effect of The Orphanage, as well as The Impossible, so the Spanish writer understands much about time and place, and does a solid job of recreating at least what he might imagine small town America in the 1960s looked like. Depicting a world where the culture war was never fought, it’s a kind of idyllic but antiquated vision of New England Gothic, in which the only British Invasion is the Marrowbone kids landing on these shores. And like the young adult literature of that era, there is something appealingly simple about a time when a young man and woman, like Jack and Allie, were forced to “text” via Morse code flashlight while miles apart.
Yet this film’s ability to establish an atmosphere is underserved when the actual horror and melodrama of the piece is about as ghostly as The Boxcar Children orphans, whom the Marrowbones resemble in their generic blandness. For a movie that take such a longtime to get going on the plot, much of the picture’s first act is still disjointed and awkward, trying to relay how much the kids fear a father who is supposedly an ocean away while failing to distinguish any of them in any meaningful way. The fact that their house is haunted is just another detail as clumsily inserted into the piece as the raccoon they befriend as it nestles into their walls. Do you want to guess what happens to him?
The picture is serviceably put together by all the performers, with only MacKay asked to do more than play to type. And the young leading man tackles that challenge heroically enough. However, there is not much any performer can do with someone as ill-fated as Jack, who is left to endure several frightful third act twists.
It would be charitable to say the film only misjudged the final secrets locked away in the Marrowbone home, which play like the kitschiest finale of a Twilight Zone episode from that era. This is because the reveals appear not judged (or thought out) at all. As it is, no matter what happens, the closing moments of the movie condemn Jack and his siblings to the worst kind of fate: an abject failure of an ending. It also reduces the part for Taylor-Joy—a talented young actress who’s been a benefit to many a recent horror movie and thriller—into being little more than the love interest in peril.
Marrowbone is like a postcard from its era: It’s juxtaposed across an image awash in nostalgia, yet also leaves little room for the details of its journey, which Sánchez desperately tries to cram into the backend of the thing. But for all that final rushed vigor, it’s damning when the one I pitied most in the whole sordid affair was the raccoon.
Marrowbone opens on Friday, April 13 in select theaters and on VOD.